The key to making them most of your work day is to firstly ask yourself what it is you want to do, and then to work out the steps needed to achieve it.  Julia Rowan advises.

The big challenge facing managers today is how to do high quality work quickly.  Technology has changed our expectations about the speed at which things happen.  Competition, itself partly driven by technology, means that expectations and standards are pushed ever higher.

I work with managers in many sectors – small enterprises, multinationals, not –for-profits – but the same issues present again and again, managers are pushed for time and either do work that is not as good as it could be, or work very long hours to get good work done.

A recent study carried out in the UK, suggests in the private sector employees work at about 42% productivity while those in the public sector achieve a productivity rate of about 32%.  By any stretch, productivity – the value you get for the work you invest – is difficult to measure, but the results of this study are absolutely in line with previous studies in this area.  In this article I look at the three most common issues which I find prevent managers from making the most of their time ask questions that will help you to determine whether you are getting the most from your day.

Human beings are creatures of habit.  And habits tend to be unconscious, so it can be useful to start paying attention to how you are making decisions about how you spend your day.  And there is a decision – even a habit-driven unconscious one – behind every action that we take.

Problem Number One – Prioritising what’s really important

Imagine that you bump into a friend that you haven’t seen for a few years and he asks you about your job “what are you doing these days?”  Without thinking too much about it, your answer would probably cover your 3 – 5 main tasks and responsibilities.

Now, think through your first hour at work – what do you do?  Most people spend their first hour doing four things:  getting an overview of what the day holds (e.g. writing to-do lists), doing small routine tasks (e.g. admin), checking for new/urgent tasks (e.g. reading new emails), and socialising.  All good stuff.  But nothing that you are going to talk about at your performance appraisal at the end of the year, nor at an interview for promotion (“I replied to every email I received within 3 minutes” does not earn brownie points from mangers, interviewers or potential investors).

Most of us, as we’re working, think about all the tasks we’d like to do if we had time: We can categorise these into four types of tasks:  people tasks like developing contacts, networking, customer-care, developing the team.  Our own personal and professional development – reading, learning skills, developing competencies, staying up to date.  Thinking and planning time – what to do, how to do it, how to make it better.  Building great infrastructure that helps me to cut through my work more quickly .  Everybody’s infrastructure is different, but could include checklists, policies, templates, IT solutions, filing systems, etc.

And there in a nutshell are the three types of tasks that you have; the important/urgent tasks – the deliverables – that everybody sees.  The not important/urgent tasks that keep the whole machine ticking over and the important/not urgent developmental tasks that help you to do higher quality work more quickly.

Really clear isn’t it?  Yes when you are able to sit back and apply perspective.  No on those days when you’re chasing your tail, when meetings run on and the number of  unread emails is increasing every 3 minutes.  That’s when we lose perspective and start prioritising the quick and urgent over the important.  The real value is in the important/not urgent tasks.  The real challenge is making some room for them.

Many of the managers that I work with develop the discipline of setting aside the first hour of every day to work on longer-term developmental tasks.  They find that this gives them a great start to the day, and that they do catch up with deadlines as the day progresses.

Problem Number Two – Not enough time spent planning

I’m not talking here about the yearly round of planning, budgeting, forecasting, strategy updating, performance appraising, etc., which is part of the cycle of most organisations.  I’m talking about managers sitting down and thinking through – in quite some detail – what they are going to do, and how they are going to do it.  The vast majority of the managers that I work with don’t make enough time for this.

And I can understand why they don’t.  The kind of planning that I’m talking about rarely has a deadline, and may unearth issues and challenges that it would be much nicer to ignore – at least in the short term.  (Besides, the email has just binged and holds such promise… )

And a lot of managers fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of planning.  They tell me that they don’t plan because there’s no point: their plans never work out, ‘real life’ happens.  But the point of planning is not to predict the future (if we were able to do that we’d be millionaires and wouldn’t need to work). The point of planning is to focus your attention on what is important and to do quality thinking and decision-making up front which will help you respond quickly and intelligently when real life hits (as it most definitely will).

So planning is partly about tasks  – what needs to be done ?  Partly about standards – how good does this need to be?  Partly about dates – when is it needed for?  It’s also about people – who could help?  Who needs to know?  Who needs to buy in?  It’s about when: what dates are problematic?  When are the tight turnarounds?  It’s about how: What infrastructure will help me to deliver this efficiently?

But it’s about much more than that; it’s about mentally walking through something from beginning to end and then turning back and working out – if this is a success, what will make it a success?  What are the real challenges?  What are the things most likely to derail this?  Does success depend on finding the right technological solution?  Is it about adhering to standards?  Is it about creating a sense of passion and urgency?  Is it about getting people to buy in and be a part of what’s happening?  Planning allows you to apply hindsight to something that hasn’t happened yet and then re-engineer your plan to take account of what you’ve learned.

And it is counter-intuitive to sit down and think when there is so much to do.  But it’s the number one way to get higher quality work done more quickly.

Problem Number Three: Fragmenting Your Day

The human brain is designed to work in cycles of 90 – 120 minutes of highly focused energy followed by a short period (about 20 minutes) of lesser focus, when it would probably be a good idea to take a break.  These are known as ultradian rhythms.

We are knowledge workers.  We need to apply reason, logic, experience, foresight and understanding to the challenges that we face.  The reality is that we spend much of our day in a state of mild – severe stress.  And stress prevents us from clear thinking, weighing up pros and cons, considering the nuances, reading the signals.  Some of the most recent research into brain function supports something that men have known all along – humans are built for uni-tasking.  Multi-tasking is stressful.

But the reality for most people is that their days are very fragmented – .  The morning generally starts with emails, writing to-do lists, and getting rid of small quick tasks that won’t take much time (we call this ‘clearing the decks’ – in fact we’re usually arranging for a crate-load of more deck-chairs to be delivered).  Then the day goes on making arrangements, dealing with admin, making phone calls and attending meetings – none of which is the purpose of anybody’s job.  In addition, many managers work on-line all day, scanning each email as it arrives.  Often the real work is only started towards the end of the day.

Think about how it used to be 40 years ago.  Then, communicating with other people was expensive and time-consuming.  Memos were drafted, typed, then corrected and distributed (post was delivered twice a day in big organisations) with the important people getting the top (clean, clear) copies and minions receiving the third carbon copy – with thick, almost illegible writing.  Distribution lists were attached to longer memos, reports and magazines (important people on top of the list got first dibs and then they bounced from in-trays to out-trays down to the minions).

Here’s what happens now: In one click you can circulate a whole organisation, department, team or mailing list (would you have bothered if it would take more time than that?).  Or you can write a carefully thought out email to somebody on an important issue and you get a 1-sentence (or even 1-word) reply sent from their mobile.  So where did they read your message – sitting in a traffic jam?  At a meeting? Walking down the corridor?

So we’ve gone from information being scarce and slow (not good – but it has its upsides) to a situation where most people feel over-whelmed with the number of emails that they receive every day.  And many managers open each email four times – firstly they are scanned to see whether there’s anything hugely urgent, secondly they are read/understood, thirdly, they are acted on/replied to and lastly they are opened to see if they can be deleted or need to be filed.

So what can managers do about this?  Firstly, they can plan to harness the energy of the ultradian rhythms by giving themselves chunks of time during the day when they attend to their important work/

Managers should work off-line for much of the day – as much as possible opening, and attending to emails before filing or deleting.  For managers who are email addicted, I often give them one “free” email session every day for a week and then ask them to donate €10 to a favourite charity every additional time they access their email.  Few charities have made much from this – but the managers have benefited hugely from changing their habits.

More than anything else, good time management is about developing a series of powerful habits that help you to make the most of your day.  The first step is becoming aware of what you are doing at the moment, so hopefully this article will have helped you to ask yourself some useful questions.